Everyday I take my dog, Danny, on two walks – each one about 45 minutes long. We meander down the various city streets near our home, both of us following Danny’s nose. My city is very walkable, so sometimes we’ll walk downtown to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the hustle and bustle.
Danny particularly likes going downtown so he can draw attention and maybe a few pets from any person willing to give him a second thought, which, as it turns out, is a lot of people.
Like most dogs, he loves receiving attention and I love watching him get it. There’s nothing quite like seeing those big, beautiful brown eyes light up someone else’s face. It’s one of the pure joys of pug ownership and one I’ll never take for granted.
Other times, we’ll walk through the quaint, palm-lined neighborhoods surrounding our home. It’s much more quiet there – better for a good think. And of course, Danny always finds another dog friend with whom he can engage in a mutual sniffing to say hello.
Usually on these walks I listen to podcasts, but sometimes I just listen to myself – quietly or out loud. Yes, I talk out loud to myself. No, I don’t care too much what people think of that. And truthfully, these walks are the most peaceful and present parts of my day.
Photo Credit: Debra Snell Photography
I attribute the peacefulness and my ability to be present to five things: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. Without question, my five senses are what keep me grounded.
On these walks, all five of my senses are activated and I often do things to intentionally heighten each one. For example, (and because this has become a new favorite) I touch plants. Yes, you read that correctly.
If I’m passing by a rose bush, I’ll reach out to feel the silky-soft petals of a rose. If I’m passing by a tree with waxy looking leaves, I’ll check to see if they are, indeed, waxy. If a succulent looks sharp, I’ll ever so gently place the tip of my finger on one of its spikes with great emphasis on the ever so gently, of course.
Like talking to myself, I probably look a bit odd doing this, but again, I don’t care. Reaching out to touch a bright pink flower or a fluorescent green leaf is like reaching deep into my own soul. When I connect to nature, I somehow feel like I’m connecting to a deeper part of myself.
And this does not surprise me one bit. After all, I am as much a part of nature as a wild plant; I’m simply more domesticated.
It also doesn’t surprise me that this practice of connecting with nature through physical touch draws me peacefully into the present moment. Our spiraling thoughts and our anxieties live in the mind, so one way to take ourselves out of our minds is through physical actions that produce visceral sensations.
Our runaway brains are on a track, plowing forward trying to grasp the future or pulling backward trying to analyze the past. But mindfulness practices, especially ones that use our senses, put the breaks on our runaway brains. We’re no longer reaching backwards or forwards; we’re reaching straight down to the depths of our being, and there we find The Ground of Being, which is what I call God.
It’s funny, I grew up in the Jesus tradition, or what is more commonly known as the Christian faith; and this idea of peace through mindfulness is scattered throughout the texts of the Bible. It was, unfortunately, never painted that way by the religious teachers of my youth. So, for much of my life, a true understanding of peace was lost on me.
Take Philippians 4:8 from The Message translation, for example:
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
I’ve heard this verse my entire life. And, up until more recently, I thought it was mostly about living a moral life – peace through right living. “Don’t think bad thoughts or else you’ll end up on God’s naughty list,” was how I understood it. Now, I see it so differently. I see it as an ancient mindfulness practice that has stood the test of time and one that is also available to me at anytime, including on my daily walks.
Let me ask, what is more true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious, beautiful and praiseworthy than a rose? What do I have to lose by admiring it? Or, even more pressing, what do I stand to lose if I don’t stop to admire it? Perhaps I’d lose out on “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” mentioned just one verse earlier in Philippians 4:7 (NIV).
Now, I’d love it if everyone reading this went outside today and spent some time caressing the flora of their neighborhood. We could all be mindful weirdos together, grounding ourselves in a collective nature experience.
But I understand this might be a little too much to ask – particularly of anyone located anywhere other than Southern California, seeing as we are now in the thick of winter and half of the country is experiencing below freezing temperatures.
Instead, I’d like to share a practical practice you can do to bring yourself into the present no matter where you are – indoors or outdoors. In fact, this practice is used by some therapists to bring clients back into the present when they begin to panic or spiral in a therapy session.
It’s often called the “5-4-3-2-1 Technique,” and it goes like this:
- Name 5 things you can see
- Name 4 things you can touch
- Name 3 things you can hear
- Name 2 things you can smell
- Name 1 thing you can taste
That’s it. Mindfulness is really that simple. Bringing your awareness to the experience of your five senses is enough to ground you – no matter how out of control your thoughts feel.
So, the next time you’re sitting at your desk and anxiety has its grip on you, or the next time you’re walking your dog and you just can’t shut off the negative thought loop in your brain, remember you always have the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique at your disposal. Or, you can just pet a plant. In my humble opinion, both achieve a similar result: peace.
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